Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – A new article in the journal Science gives evidence for a prolonged dry spell in the kingdom of Himyar (which now would comprise Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Oman) in the 500s. Since the Prophet Muhammad is traditionally said to have been born in 567 or 570, any new information about the 500s in the Arabian Peninsula is of potential interest as a background to the rise of Islam.
I discuss the rise of Islam in my book,
A team led by the University of Basel’s Dominick Fleitmann, a professor of environmental sciences, investigated a stalagmite from the Hoota cave in Oman. Stalagmites are rock formations that rise from the floor of a cave as precipitation, carrying calcium residues, lava, sand and other materials drips down from the ceiling. Fleitman and his colleagues were able to establish rates of precipitation in the cave through the past 1500 years, and showed that there was almost no growth of the stalagmite for several decades in the 500s.
What we now call the Middle East was both familiar and alien in the 500s. The Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, held what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, and Egypt, administering these provinces in Greek and usually favoring Chalcedonian Christianity, though some emperors had other tastes.
The Sasanian Empire ruled Iran, what is now Pakistan, some of Central Asia, and Iraq.
In 500 CE (A.D.) what is now Yemen was ruled by the Himyarite dynasty, as it had been for several centuries. The Himyarites were caught between the Eastern Romans and the Sasanian Iranians, just as today’s Yemen is an arena of conflict between the US and its allies on the one side and Iran on the other.
Across the Red Sea from Yemen, in what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, the Christian kingdom of Aksum dominated. It adopted the Miaphysite theology in opposition to the Chalcedonian and used the Ge’ez language, old Ethiopic. The kingdom had Greek as the language of some administrative decrees and its theologians studied Greek in Alexandria.
The Himyarite dynasty appears to have turned against the old gods around 380, ceasing to patronize their temples, which fell into desuetude. The kings of Himyar instead begain making inscriptions to the All-Merciful, Rahmanan. Sometimes their inscriptions seem explicitly Jewish, but other instances they seem to be monolatrists, worshiping the Merciful God; one inscription suggests that these Rahmanists sometimes recognized other deities, such as the Jewish Yahweh. In the early 500s, an explicitly Jewish king, Yūsuf Asʾar Yathʾar, known as Dhu Nuwas, came to power and persecuted Christians in his environments. He may also have tilted to Iran geopolitically, since the Sasanians were Zoroastrians often at war with the Christian Eastern Roman Empire.
Around 520, the king of Aksum, Kaleb, launched an invasion of Himyar.Procopius says that Constantinople put him up to it to ensure that Iran’s proxy could not interfere with Roman trade down the Red Sea and through the Bab al-Mandeb that leads to the Indian Ocean and the trading entrepot of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Dhu Nuwas responded by massacring Christians at Najran in 523, creating storied martyrs whose stories provoked grief in Christendom. Ultimately the Aksumite armies defeated him and killed him. For a while, Kaleb’s general,
Sumūyafa Ashwa, became the viceroy of what is now Yemen. Around 531, he was deposed by an Aksumite general, Abraha, who made himself an independent king of Yemen. He persecuted Jews and promoted Christianity, probably dying around 668. He was briefly succeeded in turn by two sons, who fell out with one another, and one of them allied with the Sasanians. Around 570 an Iranian naval expedition conquered Yemen and Iran ruled the area until descendants (abna’) of the Iranian admirals and other officers garrisoned there embraced Islam in the late 620s, according to the later historian Tabari.
The great Classicist, G. W. Bowersock told this story in one of my favorite books, The Throne of Adulis.
So Professor Fleitmann’s stalagmite may help explain the end of the Himyarite kingdom and the rule instead of Aksumite generals for much of the 500s.
That is, Aksum had long been interested in dominating what is now Yemen, but that was a tall order. The country is rugged and Himyar had flourished, with dams and irrigation works. The Romans called it Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia, with the implication of “prosperous.” Wanting to dominate it and being able to were not the same thing.
But if in the 520s Himyar was in the grip of a prolonged drought, the irrigation canals would have dried up and the crops would have withered and the farming villages that may have provided Himyar with its troops would have been starving and weak. Yūsuf Asʾar Yathʾar was likely defeated so handily by the armies dispatched by Kaleb of Aksum because his sources of wealth and power had dried up in the drought.
The establishment of Christianity as the state religion in Yemen was in turn fateful for the religious history of the Tihama, the literal of the Red Sea from Yemen up through the Hijaz to the southern Transjordan. Even as the Transjordan was Christianizing and abandoning the old gods, Yemen was Christianizing, disprivileging the old Jewish court elite.
The successive conquests would have created refugees and slaves in Mecca and Medina, the cities of the Prophet Muhammad, first Jews in Medina fleeing Kaleb’s and Abraha’s persecution, then Christians from 570 fleeing Zoroastrian rule. Some of the audience of the Qur’an were said to be the lower class and slaves in Mecca, and were likely significantly Christian.
Professor Fleitmann and his colleagues have resolved a further piece of the puzzle of pre-Islamic Yemen, adding an important archeological finding to the work on inscriptions of Christian Robin and Iwona Gajda.